Jeremy Rifkin: Energy-sharing is the new internet

Source: Jeremy Rifkin – Wired UK

This article was taken from the February 2012 issue of Wired
magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before
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The Second Industrial ­Revolution, powered by oil and other
fossil fuels, is spiralling into a dangerous endgame: prices are
climbing, unemployment remains high, debt is soaring and the
recovery is slowing. Worse, climate change from fossil-fuel-based
industrial activity looms. Facing a collapse of the global economy,
humanity is desperate for a new vision to take us into the

History’s great economic revolutions occur when new
communication technologies converge with new energy systems. Energy
revolutions make possible more expansive and integrated trade.
Accompanying communication revolutions manage the new complex
commercial activities. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cheap print
technology and the introduction of state schools gave rise to a
print-literate workforce with the skills to manage the increased
commercial activity made possible by coal and steam power, ushering
in the First Industrial
. In the 20th century, centralised electricity
communication — the telephone,
radio and television — became the medium to manage a more complex
and dispersed oil, auto and suburban era, and the mass consumer
culture of the Second Industrial Revolution.

Today, internet technology and renewable energies are about to
merge to create a powerful infrastructure for a Third Industrial
Revolution (TIR). In the coming era, hundreds of millions of people
will produce their own
energy and share it in an “energy internet”, just as we
now ­generate and share information online. The ­creation of a
renewable energy regime, loaded by buildings, partially stored in
the form of hydrogen, distributed via an energy ­internet and
connected to plug-in zero-emission transport, establishes a
five-pillar infrastructure that will spawn thousands of businesses
and millions of sustainable jobs. The democratisation of energy
will also bring with it a reordering of human relationships,
impacting the way we conduct business, govern society, educate our
children and engage in civic life.

The TIR will lay the foundations for a collaborative age. Its
completion will signal the end of a 200-year commercial saga
characterised by industrious thinking, entrepreneurial markets and
mass workforces, and the beginning of a new era marked by
collaborative behaviour, social networks and boutique professional
and technical workforces. In the coming half-century, conventional,
centralised business operations will be increasingly subsumed by
the distributed business practices of the TIR; and the traditional,
hierarchical organisation of power will give way to lateral power
organised nodally across society.

At first glance, lateral power seems a contradiction. Power,
after all, has traditionally been organised pyramidically. Today,
however, the collaborative power unleashed by internet technology
and renewable energies restructures human relationships, from top
to bottom to side to side, with profound consequences. The music
companies didn’t understand distributed power until millions of
people began sharing music online, and corporate revenues tumbled
in less than a decade. Encyclopedia Britannica did
not appreciate the collaborative power that made Wikipedia the leading reference
source in the world. Newspapers didn’t take the blogosphere
seriously; now many titles are either going out of business or
moving online. The
implications of people sharing energy are even more

To appreciate how economically disruptive the TIR is, consider
the changes over the past 20 years. The democratisation of
information and communication has altered the nature of global
commerce and social relations as significantly as the print
revolution. Now, imagine the impact that the democratisation of
energy across all of society is likely to have when managed by
internet technology.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Third
Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy,
the Economy, and the World (Palgrave Macmillan)

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